What is antipsychiatry?

Antipsychiatry is at once a philosophic position, a movement, and a long-term objective. In its current incarnation, antipsychiatry begins with a discursive argument—that “mental illness” per se is “a literalized metaphor” (Szasz, 1961). To put this another way, while people can find themselves in dire emotional distress and/or may alarm others, that does not in any way equate with “having an illness”. Nor does receiving a diagnosis. For a phenomenon to be an illness, it might fit the criteria for an illness. The gold standard in this regard is the Virchow criterion (the standard in medicine proper since the nineteenth century). According to this, pain or discomfort is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for something to qualify as an illness; it must be characterized by real lesion, by real cellular pathology (for discussion of the Virchow criteria, see Szasz, 1987). Significantly not only do none of the “illnesses” claimed by psychiatry meet such a standard, they do not meet substantially lower standards. What is apropos here, while psychiatry has been claiming for a very long time that people who are “disordered” have chemical imbalances and frequently reiterate that imbalances have been found, the reality is that no imbalances have ever been established for a single “mental illness”. By contrast, the various treatments of psychiatry (e.g., the drugs, electroshock) have been demonstrated to create illness. It is this reality that is the bedrock of antipsychiatry.

On the basis of arguing that the medical overlay is both mistaken and runs counter to the interests of those subjected to it, antipsychiatry thinkers and activists uncategorically oppose the medicalization. This means rejection of all putatively medical “treatments”. More fundamentally still, it means the rejection of all medical model language/conceptualizations (e.g., “mental illness”, “mental disorder”, “mental health” ,“symptom”, “syndrome”, “psychiatric treatment”, “schizophrenia”, “borderline personality disorder”). What goes along with this, on the basis of it having no defensible medical grounding, antipsychiatry theorists dispute the legitimacy of psychiatry as an area of medicine. The point is, if what is happening is not medical, the problems in living now theorized as “psychiatric problems” are not “psychiatric” or “medical” except by imposition and should not be the province of medicine.

Why does antipsychiatry reject the language of “mental health”?

Antipsychiatry thinkers and activists don’t believe that problems with living are medical in nature. Furthermore, medical and diagnostic terminology works to legitimize the field of psychiatry as a medical field; an assertion we believe is inaccurate. See above for further explanation.

What’s the difference between antipsychiatry and other movements critical of psychiatry?

While antipsychiatry overlaps with other movements critical of psychiatry, and often allies with these movements, antipsychiatry is distinguishable by its long-term goal of the abolition of psychiatry. Other movements often advocate for reform within psychiatry – ways to make the psychiatric system better. By contrast, antipsychiatry thinkers believe that reform of the psychiatric system is not enough and that we must work towards the withering away and eventual abolition of psychiatry.

How do antipsychiatry activists decide on the types of activism they engage in?

To make decisions about whether an action fits with the antipsychiatry mandate, CAPA uses the Attrition Model. Adapted from the prison abolition movement, the attrition model helps us evaluate whether an action is compatible with our long-term goal of the abolition of psychiatry.


Szasz, T. (1961). The myth of mental illness. New York: Paul B. Hoeber.

Szasz T. (1987). Insanity: The idea and its consequences. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

For further reading, see Dr. Bonnie Burstow’s On Antipsychiatry